Aboriginal artists return to renowned workshop in Mittagong

Posted December 14, 2017 16:52:04

It was the early 1970s when five young women from the remote Ernabella community in South Australia travelled from the deep desert to the lush Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

There they undertook a ground-breaking weaving residency at the Sturt Workshop in Mittagong.

Now, nearly 50 years later, a group of Ernabella artists, including one of the original women, has returned to the Sturt Workshop to showcase their vibrant art.

The exhibition, In These Hands, also marks the 70-year anniversary of Ernabella Arts, the oldest Indigenous art centre in Australia.

No time to be homesick

Wandering through the grounds of the Sturt Gallery, Atipalku Intjalku recalls her experience as a wide-eyed teenage girl out of her community for the first time to attend the 1972 residency.

“I’m remembering all the people that helped me, and the good times that we had here at Sturt,” Intjalku said.

“Was I homesick? Simply put, no.

“There was so much to learn, everything was new and exciting, everything was different — the trees, the food, the weather, the people and even what we wore!

“I was here for a long time, a few months, learning to weave on a new kind of loom, and a different kind of coloured wool, not the plain white and grey fleece wool that we used from the shearers in Ernabella.”

Historic connection

The sister relationship between Ernabella and Sturt was forged from a chance meeting at the Spinners and Weavers Association in Sydney in the mid to late 1960s.

Winifred Hilliard, Ernabella’s craft room advisor, and artist Nyukama (Daisy) Baker were in town attending an Association workshop.

Sturt’s master weaver Elisabeth Nagel, who was also present, was intrigued by the pair and by Baker’s art.

Their initial conversations sparked a lifelong friendship between the three women and forged the unique relationship between the two art centres.

In 1968, at Ms Hilliard’s invitation, Nagel travelled by mail plane from Alice Springs to the missionary community of Ernabella, on APY Lands, surrounded by stunning desert country.

Nagel was impressed by the work coming out of the art centre, and by the spirit of the community, and hatched a plan to have some of the young Ernabella women come to the Sturt workshop to extend their knowledge and skills in weaving.

Creativity blossomed with confidence

Slavica Zivkovic, co-curator of the In These Hands exhibition, spoke with a now elderly Nagel to gain an insight into the residencies that took place in 1971 and 1972.

“Elisabeth Nagel recalled that the young Ernabella women were immediately delighted by the great skeins of colourful commercial wool hanging in the studio,” Ms Zivkovic said.

“At first, Nagel’s weaving instructions were purely about technique — such as warping that required accurate counting methods — and the young women needed constant support.

“But as the young artists slowly grew with quiet confidence, their creativity blossomed.

“In the evening, the artists would do their coloured-pencil Walka drawings — patterns based on their surroundings.

“These would be translated into tapestries and floor rugs, incorporating a thread palette selected by the artists.

“The young artists became very much a part of the Sturt family and for Nagel, the residencies were not just about teaching techniques, but encouraging self-development and acceptance of culture.”

Intjalka has her own fond memories of Nagel from the 1972 residency.

“Miss Nagel looked after us the whole time,” she said.

“She taught us weaving and we taught her a little of our own language, Pitjantjara.

“On the weekends, sometimes we travelled by train to Sydney, we went to the harbour and caught a boat to the zoo.”

Australia’s oldest Indigenous arts centre

The skills and life experience the young artists gained at Sturt helped to shape the direction of Ernabella Arts, and continue to have influence as their knowledge is passed onto the next generation.

Original Sturt residency weaver Atipalku Intjalka has been accompanied on her return trip by several Ernabella artists who are visiting their sister arts centre for the first time.

They include ceramicist and exhibition co-curator Alison Milyika Carroll, ceramicist Lynette Lewis, and current chair of Ernabella Arts Tjunkaya Tapaya.

Tapaya is quietly proud of Ernabella Arts’ achievements.

“The Ernabella craft room started in 1948, the year before I was born, and it was the first art centre of its kind in Australia,” she said.

“When it first started it was only for women, and they were spinning sheep wool and making rugs and as I watched on as a little girl, I decided that would be the work I would do when I grew up.

“Then a new craft room was built, and then the young girls, young boys, and men started coming in to learn art and learning from the old people.

“Over the years, Ernabella artists have created work using many different materials and methods, including weaving, fibre arts, ceramics, and now painting as well.”

Art carries stories for next generation

As they move the through the Sturt Gallery, getting a sneak preview of the exhibition, the visiting Ernabella artists reflect on their art works.

Both Intjalka and Tapaya practice Tjanpi weaving, using natural desert grasses, seeds and feathers, together with commercially-bought raffia, string, and wool to create dioramas and large-scale installation sculptures.

“In the missionary time, we’d all go to church so I’m remembering this time from when I was a kid,” Tapaya said of a beautiful little church she has crafted.

Carroll said she feels it is all about the stories contained within the art.

“Telling stories, you know, stories, Tjukurpa,” she said.

“When we paint, and weave, and make art, we talk to the young people about Tjukurpa, dreamtime stories, and the stories are in the canvas and ceramics.

“Now it’s getting big for young people to work and learn about arts.

“When we’re gone, the art centre will be still there for our young people to make beautiful things for our future — the young people.”

In These Hands, Celebrating 70 Years of Ernabella Arts, runs at the Sturt Gallery in Mittagong until February 11, 2018.

Topics: contemporary-art, visual-art, arts-and-entertainment, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, indigenous-culture, community-and-society, library-museum-and-gallery, art-history, women, ernabella-0872, mittagong-2575, alice-springs-0870, sydney-2000

Melbourne Museum turns itself ‘inside out’, displaying usually hidden items

Posted December 09, 2017 06:00:46

It’s easy to get lost in the maze of hallways and rooms which contain Melbourne Museum’s hidden archive of treasures.

Some of the items in the 17-million-piece collection are so precious, finger print technology is used to open locked doors.

But once you’re in, there’s no telling what you might find.

“The museums are like an iceberg, there’s only the very, very tip ever on display,” Museums Victoria’s chief executive Lynley Marshall said.

“Most of the public never get to see what is stored in this museum, because there’s not more than 1 per cent of the collection on display at any one time.

“So when you get to see all these objects, you have a sense of ‘I wish more people could see more of this’.”

A new exhibition called Inside Out aims to display some of the most special items re-discovered by curators.

Some pieces have never been seen by the public.

Among them:

  • A cabinet of more than 200 taxidermied humming birds collected by famous English ornithologist John Gould.
  • An collection of 13,000 eggs from Australian birds, collected by Henry Luke White.
  • A silver dress designed by Prue Action in 1985.
  • A taxidermied collection of rare birds and other animals.
  • Precious stones which have long been hidden in the geology department.

A taxidermied Tasmanian tiger which was acquired by Hobart Zoo is also going to be put on display.

Steven Sparrey, the manager of the museum’s preparation department, has spent weeks restoring the specimen.

“The actual specimen itself is in quite good condition, and tells a lovely story about how taxidermists would have worked on and prepared these specimens a long time ago,” he said.

“We haven’t got a huge amount of these specimens as part of our collection, so it’s really important what we do have is in the best possible condition they can be in.”

The public will be able to see the 350 carefully selected items when the exhibition opens just before Christmas.

“You are going to see the most incredible collection of objects,” Ms Marshall said.

“That’s what bringing the behind the scenes out, turning the museum inside out, means for us.

“Bringing those beautiful items out so everyone can see them.”

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, library-museum-and-gallery, community-and-society, history, melbourne-3000, vic

Australia’s covert operation to take back Cross of Long Tan

Posted December 06, 2017 12:44:21

The Cross of Long Tan has finally been returned to Australians, after standing at the site of the bloody battle in Vietnam for almost 50 years.

But the cross was installed in the Australian War Memorial under the cover of darkness and its return was kept secret for weeks.

The Australian War Memorial collected the cross from Sydney Airport in early November, after the Vietnamese Government made the decision to hand it back in the lead-up to last month’s APEC conference.

The cross was then kept in a storage facility until Tuesday night, when they installed it in the Reg Saunders gallery.

Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson said he was proud of his staff for keeping its return a secret.

“Given the sensitivities around it, we all kept very quiet,” he said.

“Confidence has been kept.”

The cross was erected by Australian soldiers in 1969 at the site of the controversial Battle of Long Tan, during which 18 Australian men were killed.

It was the most costly battle for Australian troops in the Vietnam War.

The cross’s return comes after Vietnamese authorities cancelled official commemorations at the site of the battle last year, on its 50th anniversary.

“A number of attempts have been made over the years to get the cross back, including by us here at the Australian War Memorial,” Dr Nelson said.

“We tried unsuccessfully to have it on loan for the 50th anniversary in 2016.

“I think the issues surrounding the frustration … in 2016 trying to go to the site and visit the cross itself, I think that played a role in it.”

‘A great act of generosity’

He said the Vietnamese Government had recognised the emotional significance of the cross to Australians.

“It’s a symbol of service, of suffering and remembering with love and emotion, the men who fought and suffered and the families who supported them,” he said.

“In the end, the cross, this place, it’s not about war, it’s about love and friendship.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the return of the cross was a “great act of generosity” by the Vietnamese Government.

“It is remarkable that older men now, the generations of fighters on both sides, bare no grudges against each other,” he said.

“They fought and they died and they served and now they are friends.”

He said the agreement to return the cross promised to carry the friendship of the two nations forward.

Topics: unrest-conflict-and-war, library-museum-and-gallery, canberra-2600, act, vietnam

Tackling old technology to keep digital archives alive

Posted December 01, 2017 09:00:02

We usually think of digital records as accessible, up to date and easy to store.

But for the preservation staff at the State Library of Western Australia, saving this type of content has proven far trickier than simply keeping mildew away from books.

“If you think about keeping a book, what you need to do is ensure it doesn’t have any mould or pests and then store it somewhere safely in the stacks where we have a climate-controlled environment,” David Ong, manager for digital preservation, said.

“Digital content is much more fragile than that, specifically through obsolescence.”

The library, in addition to books and records, holds a large collection of digital material, some of which dates back decades and much of which is not as easy to access as, say, flipping through a book.

“The State Library is interested in collecting West Australian content of historical value, and that content can come in a range of formats from a range of places,” Mr Ong said.

Format change a formidable challenge

Although it might have been safely stored on floppy discs or CD ROMs when it was created, the ability to look at digital files can and is undermined by rapid changes to formats and technology.

“There are so many different types of computers; if you think about the different operating systems, you have Mac and Windows, [those] are the main ones, and those operating systems have gone through multiple iterations, and each of those has a different piece of functionality that they bring along,” Mr Ong said.

“We have seen different types of floppy discs, different sizes, there have been CDs and DVDs, and now we are transferring a lot of files over the internet.

“With any kind of digital file we need the software to be able to open it.

“The software has to run on a specific operating system which may need hardware to run.

“So unlike picking up that book off the shelf and flipping through it, I need a whole lot of bits and pieces of technology in the same place at the same time to be able to open and read a digital file.”

Mr Ong said there could sometimes be a lengthy process to simply see if a single photograph was worth preserving.

And sometimes opening the file is impossible.

“Our first step would be to go back to the donor and say, ‘Can you provide me with another copy?'” he explained.

In some instances, however, that will be the only copy of the file.

Detective work to unlock an old image

In one such instance Mr Ong ran an image file through two pieces of software; the first told him the file was not well formed, the second showed him lines of characters that were the raw contents of the file.

With some detective work he was able to identify where the error was, fix the broken tag and then output the file again.

But after all that effort Mr Ong discovered the image was a low-resolution scan of a photograph the library already had in the original printed format and decided not to keep the file.

Although it can be disappointing to do painstaking work for an insignificant record, Mr Ong was also assured the library had not lost anything valuable.

The importance of personal archiving

Mr Ong’s work has fed a keen interest in taking care of his personal photographic collection and encouraging others to think about how they stored their images.

“Once you have all your photos in one spot, think about describing them at a very high level,” he said.

“I have a mental picture of my kids cringing as I hand them 500,000 photographs which are labelled 001, 002, 003.

“Files that are out of context will not have any meaning at all, so any effort I can make now will make a huge difference in the future.”

He also regularly backs up his images in several places.

“I have my photos on my laptop at home, I have a second copy on an external hard drive at home, and a third copy on an external hard drive that I have left at a mate’s place.

“If a piece of equipment fails, or my house burns down, or someone breaks in and steals my laptop and my hard drive, I will at least have one other copy somewhere else.”

Topics: library-museum-and-gallery, digital-multimedia, history, internet-culture, human-interest, perth-6000

Doing the smelly, gross work that’s invaluable for science

Posted November 21, 2017 09:00:00

It’s often messy, smelly and a little bit gross, but the work of a vertebrates collections manager is vital for science.

Belinda Bauer is responsible for maintaining the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s collections of animal specimens, both on display and in storage.

She also has the job of preparing specimens in the wet lab at TMAG’s collections facility in Rosny.

“A lot of skinning goes on down here,” she said.

“Just yesterday I washed out a few skeleton macerations, so that’s the smell, it’s the smell of the bones drying.”

To prepare an animal specimen as a disarticulated skeleton, Ms Bauer uses the water maceration method.

Basically, she skins the animal, takes off as much flesh as she can and then puts the remains in a bucket of water.

It is left there until the remaining flesh has rotted off the bones.

The bones are then washed with a diluted ammonia solution and dried.

On the day the ABC visited, Ms Bauer was taking feather samples from penguins for a study by the Lund University in Sweden.

She was also preparing the bodies to be skeleton specimens.

“I’ll pluck part of them and send some feathers off and take some detailed photographs of the skin patches for those researchers,” she said.

“I’ll prepare both specimens as skeletons, disarticulated loose skeletons, that will be available for researchers and will become part of our reference collection.”

Before macerating the specimen, Ms Bauer takes a lot of detailed measurements and other notes and the information is kept in a database.

“Without that information it can be of little use for research,” she said.

“It’s more than just skinning and stuffing; it’s more about maintaining a collection that represents Tasmanian biodiversity and making sure that is accessible for researchers around the world.”

Ms Bauer also works with the curators at TMAG creating public displays of animal specimens, working out the best way to display them in a way that best tells their stories.

“We’re not here to make beautiful things, I’m not a taxidermist,” she said.

“By preserving physical evidence of Tasmanian biodiversity, it means that researchers can access it now, and if we do a good job of our preparation, they will be able to do so for the next 150, 200 years.”

And it is not just animal bodies that need to be prepared for display and recording.

Ms Bauer also prepared a number of specimens of Tasmanian devil poo for an upcoming exhibition to show what wild devils eat.

“You could have a photograph or an observation of an animal and that’s useful, but having a specimen means that it’s verifiable,” she said.

Topics: zoology, library-museum-and-gallery, research, research-organisations, human-interest, people, careers, rosny-7018

Rare German WWI tank kept safe inside a bubble

Posted November 20, 2017 12:39:20

Mephisto, the world’s only German A7V tank from World War I, is being housed in a massive plastic bubble west of Brisbane.

“Only 20 of these tanks were made,” said Jennifer Wilson, senior curator at the Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich.

“Germany was late to tank warfare in WWI.

“The tank has been put in a protective cocoon so we can control the humidity, keep it dust free and safe while it’s with us.

“It’s certainly a very big bubble.”

The imposing A7V Sturmpanzerwagen had quite the journey before arriving in Queensland.

“This tank was out on an advance to take back the area around Villers-Bretonneux on the Western Front in France,” Ms Wilson said.

“It got stuck in a hole and the manoeuvrability wasn’t quite there yet, so it remained.

“The German crew left the tank and the Allies retook that ground and salvaged the tank as a war trophy for Queensland in 1918.”

Queenslanders and Tasmanians from the 26th Battalion took the tank under the cover of darkness.

“They got it on a ship and across the water to Australia and it has been on display as part of the Queensland Museum since that time,” Ms Wilson said.

It arrived at Norman Wharf in Brisbane in June 1919 and was towed to the Queensland Museum on Gregory Terrace by Brisbane City Council steamrollers.

In 1986, Mephisto was then relocated to Queensland Museum at South Bank until the 2011 floods.

It also spent time in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial in 2015 to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI.

“It’s back here to rest,” Ms Wilson said.

“It’s being prepared now to be placed back into an exhibition at the Queensland Museum about WWI and Queensland history which will open late 2018.

“The operation to get it back there will be a big one and will involve shutting down roads and multiple cranes used to get the tank in place.”

Topics: world-war-1, library-museum-and-gallery, community-and-society, human-interest, ipswich-4305, brisbane-4000

From Russia (to Sydney) with love: ‘Cute, cuddly’ frozen woolly mammoth arrives

Updated November 17, 2017 10:18:32

Lyuba was just 35 days old when she died in a mudslide and now, 42,000 years later, the world’s oldest and most intact mammoth has arrived in Sydney.

The baby mammoth, whose name means “love” in Russian, made the long trip from Siberia in a crate, having to be placed in a refrigerator at Dubai airport while accompanied by a minder from the Shemanovsky Yamal-Nenets District Museum in Siberia.

“She’s an extraordinarily delicate thing,” Australian Museum creative producer Trevor Ahearn said.

Mr Ahearn said Lyuba’s arrival was “extremely nerve-wracking, [but] at the same time a thrill”.

“She’s come from the Arctic Circle, which is clearly a very different climate to Sydney. We’ve had to put her in our special store, which is climate controlled and she had to stay there for 24 to 48 hours to acclimatise before we could crack open the case,” he said.

Now, out of quarantine and painstakingly examined and mounted, Lyuba is the drawcard for the Australian Museums’ Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age exhibition.

“I guess the star of the show is Lyuba the baby woolly mammoth from Siberia,” the Australian Museum’s director Kim McKay told the ABC.

Lyuba was discovered in 2007 in north-western Siberia by a family who were reindeer herders.

“They knew not to touch her because they were animists and didn’t want to bring bad luck,” Ms McKay said.

A very traumatic end to life for a very little mammoth

The baby mammoth is mostly intact, however wild dogs have bitten off her tail and part of her ear.

“She’s been more studied than any other woolly mammoth on earth,” the director said.

“There’s fur on her body, she even has her milk tusks as well as her milk teeth.”

The Australian Museum’s curator of palaeontology, Dr Matthew McCurry, described Lyuba as “the most complete mammoth that we have”.

“Most fossils that we find are tiny and fragmentary. Lyuba is almost complete,” he said.

Scientists believe the baby mammoth was frozen and preserved by lactic acid-producing bacteria.

They were able to see that Lyuba’s last meal was grass.

“She died in a mudslide, we know that because inside her trunk, inside her air passages there’s mud preserved,” Dr Matthew McCurry said.

Mr Ahearn told the ABC how the staff handling Lyuba were very fond of the little mammoth.

“It’s not difficult to imagine she would have been cute and cuddly.” Mr Ahearn said.

Topics: library-museum-and-gallery, palaeontology, animals, sydney-2000

First posted November 17, 2017 10:11:16